Decades ago the expressions “Don’t toot your own horn” and “Don’t get too big for your britches” were considered wise parental correctives for cocky kids. Boastfulness (though enshrined in the literature of American tall-tales) was perceived as a grave character flaw in public life – so much so that Abe Lincoln made humorous humility his trademark. When accused of being “two-faced” by Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln quipped: “Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?”
Fast-forward 150 years, and such self-effacing discourse is hard to find. Our President tweets that he is “really smart … a very stable genius.” The Minority Leader assures us “I am a master legislator” and “the biggest fund raiser in the country.” They’re both in their late seventies, so they should know better, but not so you’d notice. They mirror a general culture enamored of Self. Self esteem. Self promotion. Self assertion. Self confidence. Self efficacy. Selfies…. Psychologists note the rise of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the general population, and most worrisome: the incidence of this disorder (largely undetected only two decades ago) is three times higher for people in their twenties than for those sixty-five and older. In this environment, does humility stand a chance? And what is humility anyway? Humility is not regarding oneself as worthless. Only the obsequious and pathologically depressed wander into that territory. Aristotle taught that virtue lies in the mean between two extremes. Hence, humility is the mean between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing.
The humble person recognizes her strengths, but eagerly seeks to understand the strengths of others; she knows her own weaknesses and assumes others have theirs. The humble person is inclined—since she is one and others are many, since all of us are part of the human community—to be fundamentally interested in “the other.” The humble person moves beyond self toward the other. Evangelical pastor and inspirational speaker Rick Warren got it right when he wrote: “true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” When we consider the heroically humble figures of our time, Mother Teresa comes to mind. As she lifted the poor and the dying off the streets of Calcutta, finding them shelter and rest in their final days, she provoked controversy. Hers was not a “systemic” solution to the problem of poverty, some complained. How much could this band-aid help or matter? It mattered to the ones she took off the streets, Mother Teresa responded calmly. She went on to establish convents and homes for those dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis around the world. The religious order she founded, the Missionary Sisters of Charity, now operates homes for the dying, orphanages, soup kitchens, clinics and dispensaries for the poorest of the poor in over one hundred and thirty countries.
Mother Teresa’s humility, her radical love of neighbor, was inspired by the Lord she followed. Jesus urged his disciples to wash the feet of those they served, to take up their cross, to stand firm but humble when mocked and derided. Jesus was not alone in praising those who were “meek and humble of heart.” His Jewish forefathers warned consistently against those who were “haughty of heart.” And four hundred years before Christ, the Buddha cautioned his followers against “self-seeking and conceit,” urging them to be “mindful of the kindness and not the faults of others,” and to pursue “lowliness.” Islam’s prophet Muhammad also taught, “Humility increases the dignity of one endowed with it. Be humble and Allah will exalt you.” Are the leaders of so many of the world’s foremost religious faiths missing the mark?
Humility is freeing. It encourages us not to take ourselves too seriously. “Humility is the mother of all virtues,” Mother Teresa wrote. “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed, you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint, you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” In April, we work toward a world in which fewer people are jostling for the pedestals.
Mother Teresa’s advice:
“Calcuttas are everywhere, if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.”